Nuclear Regulation:

Regulatory and Cultural Changes Challenge NRC

T-RCED-00-115: Published: Mar 9, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 9, 2000.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed regulatory and cultural challenges facing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), focusing on the: (1) views of NRC staff on the quality of work NRC performs; and (2) status of NRC's efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy to implement a risk-informed regulatory approach.

GAO noted that: (1) although GAO's survey results showed that the vast majority of NRC staff feel their work contributes to protecting public health and safety, their views on NRC's efforts to change its regulatory approach were less favorable; (2) while almost half of the staff who responded to the survey said that the change to risk-informed regulation has had a positive effect on nuclear safety, only about one-fourth believe that NRC staff have bought into the process; (3) 60 percent of the staff who responded to questions about this oversight process believe that it will reduce the margins of safety at nuclear power plants; (4) GAO's findings are similar to the results of a NRC survey, which found that 70 percent of its staff who expressed an opinion do not believe that the new oversight process will allow for the identification of declining safety performance; (5) based on the results of the NRC survey and input from stakeholders, NRC has made some changes to the new oversight process in anticipation of its implementation in April 2000; (6) NRC staff expect to provide the Commission with a draft comprehensive strategy, which NRC is calling an Implementation Plan, for moving to a risk-informed regulatory approach in March 2000; (7) NRC will then seek public comments on the plan, and it may then take another year to put it in place; (8) the outline of the draft implementation plan that was provided to the Commission in January 2000 touched on the elements GAO recommended to be included in a strategy for moving to a risk-informed regulatory approach in GAO's March 1999 report; (9) disagreement between NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over appropriate standards for regulating radiation levels at nuclear facilities could impact the costs to decommission nuclear power plants and develop a proposed repository for the plants' high-level waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada; (10) although EPA has authority to establish a standard for residual radiation at nuclear power plants that have been decommissioned, it has not done so; (11) utilities are using a standard developed by NRC that EPA believes is not restrictive enough; (12) utilities are concerned that they may ultimately have to use a more restrictive EPA standard, which would increase their decommissioning costs; (13) EPA has proposed a radiation standard to protect public health and safety at the proposed nuclear waste repository, as it was required to do in 1992; and (14) NRC, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a board of the National Academy of Sciences, and others have raised concerns about whether the proposed standard would have an impact.

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